Pissarro: Father of Impressionism – a review by Sandra Smith

Instrumental in the development of Impressionism, Camille Pissarro’s (1830 – 1903) openness to new ideas reflected a character that was both productive and unconventional and which is revealed in the Ashmolean’s latest major exhibition.

Like many artistic geniuses who are now celebrated, Pissarro’s commercial success was limited to the last few years of his life. By then he had collaborated with many contemporaries and explored styles and subjects which ranged from charcoal portraits to landscapes with an industrial edge.

Born in the Danish West Indies and from Jewish descent, Pissarro moved to Paris in 1855. There, he took informal lessons with Corot who encouraged his protégé to paint outdoors. This fostered an interest in working landscapes as evidenced in one of the first paintings on display, (oil on canvas) Quai du Pothuis at Pontoise, the delicate composition incorporating part of a treacle distillery on the banks of the Oise at Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône.

The first main gallery devoted to this exhibition, which idea was originally contemplated five years ago, includes family portraits such as the uncannily contemporary Portrait of Lucien Pissarro. Indeed all of his children (there were eight, two born prior to wedlock) shared their devoted father’s artistic interest. In this section are also lithographs, oils and watercolours as well as display cases containing illustrations.

The main gallery is testament to the coolness and serenity of Impressionism, an opportunity to be immersed in landscapes and scenes of everyday life expressed with a gentleness of manner which defines the era.

By 1890, after toying with Neo Impressionism (tiny, adjacent dabs of primary colours to create the effect of light), Pissarro abandoned the constraints of this method which, he declared, ‘Tie me down and prevent me from reproducing the spontaneity of the sensation.’ This period is the focus of the final gallery which includes one of two self portraits in oils, both of which are as intense and enigmatic as the artist himself. Looking directly at the viewer, Pissarro engages and challenges in a way only a skilled manipulator of brushstrokes and composition is able.

Home to the Pissarro’s family archive, and the greatest single collection in the world, Pissarro: Father of Impressionism is evidence that the Ashmolean has yet again showcased its ability to acclaim an artist of international repute, an artist whose popularity is as timeless and enduring as the museum itself.

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism (until 12 June 2022), Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH Tickets available on the Ashmolean website.

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